Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Implementing communism: syndicalism

Implementing communism minimally requires two major changes: Socializing the ownership of capital and radically expanding and improving the socialization of political power.

If we are to place the ownership of capital in the hands of the government — and we must; the alternatives of individualistic or privatized ownership are much worse — then the government must more completely be placed in the hands of the people. It is no longer sufficient for the people to choose their rulers, they must step up and actively rule themselves.

Democratic self-rule cannot simply allowing any ad hoc majority to arbitrarily decide any question of social importance. Democratic self-rule must still be organized and institutionalized. We've learned some important lessons from capitalist pseudo-democracy. Social decision-making must be deliberative: we have to explicitly think and talk about our social decisions before we make them. We have to make authoritative decisions: we have to know precisely what constitutes an actual social decision as opposed to a general preponderance of opinion. We have to make coercive social decisions generally, objectively, and before the fact: it's no mistake that the US Constitution explicitly prohibits ex post facto laws and bills of attainder. All of these requirements argue for vesting political power in some sort of institutional framework.

The question is not whether we should institutionalize political power, but what kind of institution we should construct. If we do not explicitly and intentionally construct social institutions, institutions will evolve on their own. Such self-evolved institutions will probably protect and further the interests of only the most immediately powerful people. (Indeed this outcome is so obviously entailed by the right-anarchist program that one must suspect it is their covert conscious intention to seize political power for their own exclusive benefit. On the other hand, the human capacity for self-delusion is so enormous that speculating on covert intention is always problematic.)

The kinds of social institutions we should construct will depend sensitively on the conditions existing at the time of their actual construction. Most of the details of the US Constitution (one of the best examples of artificially constructed social institutions) were the direct result of conditions extant in the late 18th century: colonial divisions, slavery, the historical institutions of the British monarchy, Parliament and judicial system, etc. (It's interesting to note that with few exceptions, most states have a bicameral legislature, even though the creation of the US Senate was primarily a response to the relative independence of the separate colonies.)

Since any revolutionary change in our economic and political institutions is at the very least a decade away, and probably many decades, it's impossible to predict the specific conditions that will obtain. I can, however, speculate and theorize about some high-level ideas that might serve as a framework.

All more-or-less democratic, organized nations have both some sort of deliberative body (a legislature and executive) as well as a civil service more-or-less separate from, independent of but subservient to the deliberative body. The deliberative body sets policy; the civil service both maintains the objective expertise to carry out that policy and, because of its independence, serves to some extent as a check on unconscionable and unrealistic policy. We are fortunate in the United States to have a civil service that is competent and professional, and balances subservience and independence reasonably effectively. More importantly, the civil service is, by and large, not a component of the "capitalist state" in Lenin's terms. The character of the modern civil service is very different from the 19th century capitalist state bureaucracy justifiably condemned by Marx and other 19th century communist leaders. The civil service — with the exception of the police and the army, which will require substantial changes — is not an institution acting predominantly as an instrument of class oppression. There are some systemic abuses and problems, but the modern civil service mostly manages the objective details of the physical and administrative apparatus of government: they build and maintain the roads, bridges and tunnels; manage records; deliver the mail*; operate libraries; provide education, ensure compliance with health and safety codes, and perform other essential functions of any organized society.

*Yes, I know the US Postal Service is technically a private company. So is the Federal Reserve.

There is no reason we cannot continue to use the evolved competence and character of the civil service. We can instead focus our attention on radically changing how the civil service is actually used, on how policy is set.

Under our current pseudo-democratic system, government rule even at the local level is intentionally alienated and disconnected from the individual citizens; at the state and federal level, one's elected representatives are little more than their party affiliations and distorted biographies fictionalized by the capitalist media. If the people are to rule themselves, they have to take day-to-day responsibility for the operation of governmental institutions.

One possible way to do this is electronic direct democracy, a possibility afforded only in the last ten years with the development of the internet. Essentially everyone in a geographic region constitutes the "deliberative body" for that region; everyone logs on, discusses the issues before the body, and votes on social decisions. The technological problems are non-trivial, but there's nothing that hasn't been solved in theory and the economic hurdles are no more difficult than building the interstate highway system.

One important characteristic of electronic direct democracy is that it doesn't afford any mechanism for selecting any kind of meritocracy for the setting of public policy. Whether this characteristic is a drawback or an advantage is a matter of opinion; in my opinion, there the advantages of a meritocracy outweigh the drawbacks, so long as they can privilege only their judgment, not their interests.

An alternative to electronic direct democracy is hierarchical syndicalism. Individual citizens organize themselves into small groups, and these groups choose their local leaders, with the power of immediate recall and replacement. The local leaders choose the regional leaders (again with the power of immediate recall) and the regional leaders choose the national leaders. The power of immediate recall is critical, as well as severe and uncompromising restrictions on the individual economic reward given to delegates and a requirement of nearly absolute transparency of delegates' official activities. Furthermore, these delegates must serve not just as deliberative bodies, but as an executive body, responsible for the day-to-day operation of governmental institutions, especially the civil service, the police and the army.

A syndicalist organization offers some scope for selection not just on the basis of popularity but also of competence: competent delegates will at least have an opportunity to argue directly with their constituents for immediately unpopular decisions, and constituents can recall popular but incompetent delegates. With transparency, individual economic limitations, and direct accountability to a small group of constituents, delegates can maintain their positions not by accumulating power, but only by competently fulfilling their constituents' interests.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


db0 falls for the Spanish Prisoner scam. What does this uber-anarchist do? He goes to the police!

Are anarchists even stupider than Christians? Probably not, but it's pretty close.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Understanding the financial crisis: leverage


Suppose you buy a house. The house costs $100,000. You pay $100,000 cash for the house, wait a year, and then sell the house for $105,000. You've made a profit of $5,000 on an investment of $100,000, a respectable 5% rate of return. Suppose after a year you sell the house for $95,000: you've lost $5,000, or a -5% rate of return; painful, but not catastrophic.

Suppose, however, that you make a $5,000 down payment, and borrow $95,000 at 1% interest. If you sell the house at $105,000, you've made $5,000 on an investment of $5,950 (down payment + interest), for an 81% rate of return. If the house falls $5,000 in price, you're going to lose everything for a -100% rate of return.

In this case, borrowing money to buy the house constitutes leverage: it magnifies your rate of return, positive and negative, just as a physical lever magnifies force. A physical lever doesn't give you a "free lunch", in addition to magnifying the force applied, it also magnifies the distance you have to move your end of the lever; financial leverage magnifies not only the rate of return but also magnifies the risk.

Suppose you believe that overall, house prices are going to rise 5% in a year. Unfortunately, there's a lot of variation in individual house prices. Some houses will rise 10% in price; others, for various reasons (leaky roof, termites, a city council scandal) will fall 5% in price. Suppose you know (by looking at historical data) the probability distribution of these variations around a mean 5% increase. Since you know the distribution, this probability constitutes risk. If you have $100,000 to invest, you're better off buying 16-17 houses using leverage than you would if you bought one house for cash.

For example, suppose you know that there's a 67% chance of a house rising 10% in value and a 33% chance it'll fall 5% in value. If you buy one house for $100,000, your expectation is 67% * $10,000 + 33% * -$5,000 = $5,000. But you still have a 1/3 chance of losing 5,000. If you buy two houses, though, and the probabilities are independent (just because one house has termites doesn't mean another will), then your overall expectation doesn't change (you still expect to make $5,000 per house, an 81% rate of return), but the risk of losing your shirt falls to 11%. (The probability of a 10% rise (a 168% rate of return) also falls from 67% to 44%.)

The more houses you buy, the narrower the probability distribution, and the more likely it is you yourself will receive exactly the mean increase in house prices (less interest) and the leveraged rate of return on your investment. You're getting an 81% with (apparently) virtually no risk at all.

The bank doesn't mind loaning you all the money you want at a measly 1%, so long as you can come up with the down payment and interest: If worst case a house loses 5% of value, they'll get all their money back; they'll make their $950 rain or shine.

However, you're not the only smart person in the world. All your neighbors in Grosse Pointe or Beverly Hills also have $100,000 sitting in the bank earning 0.5% interest, and they'd also like to earn a hundred times as much by leveraged speculation in housing prices. You and all your neighbors start investing in houses. Assuming for the moment that the bank has infinite reserves and there's no effect from all these people withdrawing their savings to pay down payments to the owners (more on this later), you suddenly have a lot of people competing to buy houses, and the supply of houses can't quickly increase. So the efforts of all of these people to invest in houses will drive up the price of housing. But that's precisely what everyone is betting on! It's a "good" thing that I suddenly have to pay $101,000 for a $100,000 house, because the next guy will have to pay $102,000, and so on. All of this speculation makes the mean rate of return increase from a "fundamental" level of 5% to 6% or 7%, and raises the "worst case" from a loss of 5% to a loss of only 3-4%. Since the worst case has gotten less worse, we need a smaller down payment to buy a house, and we can further increase our leverage, increasing our rate of return.

If speculation is raising the fundamental rate of increase by just 1 percentage point, then house prices are 4.85% above their fundamental value after 5 years. Ruh roh, Shaggy! Remember, we're assuming that a "worst case" fall in price of 5% is uncorrelated between houses. But the speculation has created a correlated uncertainty: if everyone stops speculating, house prices will plausibly fall to their fundamental value, which would represent an almost 5% loss. Furthermore, because we have been building more houses than we otherwise would have, the fundamental price might rise less than 5%.

Suppose prices do fall 5% overall. Remember, the bank wants to be sure they get their principal back: They're not going to take much risk for a measly 1% interest rate. They're going to demand that borrowers fork over additional money for equity to cover the loss or sell the house and repay the loan immediately. Suddenly, you have a lot of speculators trying to sell a lot of houses, creating a temporary surplus, which lowers the price. Which makes the banks demand more equity and call in more loans, which lowers the price. Which... well, you get the picture. Since there's a huge temporary surplus, prices might fall below even their fundamental rate.

In a regulated capitalist economy, this "bubble" behavior isn't too bad. The banks, with their low interest rates and low tolerance for risk, act to dampen price swings: they make sure that investors, who took a higher risk for a higher return, eat the downside when prices fall.

The problem is that in an unregulated capitalist economy, the banks themselves are not content with a minuscule 0.5% return (the difference between what they pay to savers and what they collect from borrowers). They want in on these 81% rates of return too.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

LOST is bulldada?

Tiger Beatdown makes a good case that LOST is pure bulldada: that which is brilliant because its unintentionally stupid.

I mean seriously: if Ben Linus wanted someone to pass the salt, he'd manipulate Locke into stealing the salt and hiding it, Sawyer into following him and stealing the salt, Juliet into seducing Sawyer and stealing the salt out of his pocket, and wait 20 years to manipulate Miles into traveling back in time and tripping Juliet so some of the salt spills on his food.

God fucking forbid he would just say, "Pass the salt."

Saturday, March 13, 2010


Hitler: The most versatile word on the Internet
[W]hy would the opportunistic howler monkeys feeding Hitler comparisons to a conspiracy-theory-hungry America pretend that Hitler was some sort of evil genius if he was just an opportunistic howler monkey feeding over-the-top rhetoric to a conspiracy-theory-hungry Germany?

If that rhetorical question makes your head hurt, you already know the answer to both questions: Because it's what the Masons and the Jews want you to believe.
See also: The 5 Most Widely Believed WWII Facts (That Are Bullshit)

Communism and finance

It is clear that we presently face only two choices: either the government takes over finance or finance takes over the government. The uneasy separation of private ownership of finance capital with strong government regulation worked for a while, but has proven unstable, even in more "socialist" Europe. The problem is not that heavily regulated finance doesn't work; it works pretty well, at least by capitalist standards. The problems is that it's fundamentally hypocritical. If finance capital really were privately owned, then the benefits of finance capital should necessarily accrue to its owners, not "society", and its owners should have a relatively free hand as to its best management. If, on the other hand, a well-operating financial system really is absolutely necessary to the well-being of the people, then why maintain the fiction that it's privately owned?

We do not say that political power is privately owned by the politicians, the chiefs of police, the generals and the judges. We do not expect a "good" political system to emerge from the private benefit of its managers, administrators and policy-makers. The country will not be stronger because the President has a private stake in, for example, the conquest of Iraq. Why then should we assume with the fervency of a religious zealot that a "good" financial and economic system must necessarily emerge from the private benefit of the bankers and financiers?

What we say and do as a society really does matter. We don't walk around saying that political power belongs to the chiefs of police, and — by and large — the chiefs of police don't come to think that they should personally gain by using their power. There are a lot of abuses, to be sure, but our socialized management of political power must be seen as orders of magnitude better than what we know to be the worst case that can and does exist in much of the world where, "We give you a badge and a gun: what do you need a salary for?" prevails.

If we walk around saying "capital should be privately owned" then a significant fraction of its owners will — despite all popular regulation — come to believe it's the the truth; they will come to believe their private ownership is just and right. The hypocrisy between this attitude and actual political, governmental regulation will rankle their consciences and they will use their power to eliminate the irritation.

We could, I suppose, try to roll back the clock to 1939 or 1945 and try to replicate the efforts of FDR and the post-war political consensus to implement de facto economic socialization using regulation and taxation. It worked then (more or less); why can't it work now?

The problem is that the same social conditions that obtained in 1939 and 1945 don't obtain now. Another problem is that while FDR "New Deal" de facto socialization worked in the short term, it failed in the long term. The New Deal didn't fail easy; it took the Randian capitalists almost 40 years to bring it down, but the hypocrisy proved sufficient motivation to undertake a decades-long effort. We know we must address not just the immediate task of re-regulation and re-socialization, but also break the power of the capitalist class to mount a counter-revolution, even one that takes generations. In much the same sense, it was not enough to regulate the power of the monarchy: we had to break the power of the monarchy to mount a counter-revolution.

Of course, the effort to regulate finance capitalism is even now failing miserably. Despite a Democratic majority and enormous popular support, the government is simply unable to implement even the most basic, obvious financial regulations. We're not even in a class conflict: The Randian capitalists have won the field, and to the victor go the spoils: they will without a doubt run the country into the ground for their own private benefit. Things are going to get worse, a lot worse, before there's even an opportunity for things to get better.

We have to change our ideas. We have to walk around saying that capital belongs not to the capitalists (and not to any party or other self-selected organization) but to the people; that each individual's labor belongs to that individual, and not to any capitalist who can buy her labor power. Hamlet said, "assume a virtue of you have it not." Ownership is a social construct: it is what people say it is. If we start saying that capital belongs to the people, it may, sooner or later, come to be true. If we do not say it, it will never come to be true.

Indefensible Men

Yves Smith reprints this article from The Baffler:
Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold.

— Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society

A year on from its brush with Armageddon, the financial services industry has resumed its reckless, self-serving ways It isn’t hard to see why this has aroused simmering rage in normally complacent, pro-capitalist Main Street America. The budget commitments to salvaging the financial sector come to nearly $3 trillion, equivalent to more than $20,000 per federal income tax payer. To add insult to injury, the miscreants have also availed themselves of more welfare programs in the form of lending facilities and guarantees, totaling nearly $12 trillion, not all of which will prove to be money well spent.

Wall Street just looted the public on a massive scale. Having found this to be a wondrously lucrative exercise, it looks set to do it all over again.

These people above all were supposed to understand money, the value of it, the risks attendant with it. The industry broadly defined, even including once lowly commercial bank employees, profited handsomely as the debt bubble grew. Compensation per worker in the early 1980s was similar to that of all non-government employees. It started accelerating in 1983, and hit 181 percent of the level of private sector pay by 2007. The rewards at the top were rich indeed. The average employee at Goldman Sachs made $630,000 in 2007. That includes everyone, the receptionists, the guys in the mail room, the back office staff. Eight-figure bonuses for big producers became standard in the last cycle. And if the fourth quarter of 2009 proves as lucrative as the first three, Goldman’s bonuses for the year will exceed bubble-peak levels. ...

Finance has lost sight of its role.

Banking and capital markets have become important to advanced economies, but also they represent a charge on the productive economy, just like lawyers and national defense. Ironically, the Japanese understood this well, and were still unable to prevent a turbo charged borrowing binge that left their economy a mess. They recognized that letting banks be very profitable comes at the expense of industry. And indeed, until the global financial crisis, while Japan’s domestic economy remained mired in deflation, its export sector was still robust. When our crisis broke out, Japanese policy makers were uncharacteristically blunt and warned the US that the mistake they had made was not cleaning up their banking sector quickly. We are repeating their error for the very same reason: financial firms have great political clout.

Or, as John Maynard Keynes put it, “When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill done.”

Yet the people at the heart of this system, even with the wreckage they created all around them, still fail to acknowledge that the rich pay of recent years was the product of a debt binge. It wasn’t just the makers of the pernicious securities who benefited; all boats in the finance industry rose with the surge of borrowing. Trying to defend the status quo ante shows a willful, self-serving blindness to the proper place of financial markets in a healthy economy.

Worse, it bespeaks a dangerous, destructive ideology that has somehow managed to live on, zombie-like, through the crisis. The idea that the needs of the financial sector trump those of the productive sector isn’t just specious; as the crisis so vividly demonstrated, it’s outright dangerous. But its strange persistence as an article of faith among our leadership class, both in government and the media, has yielded inertia and fecklessness where there should be energy and resolve. It seems that before we can confront the challenge of mending our broken financial system, a battle of ideology must be waged and won. And the hour is getting late.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Why we can't inflate our way out of debt

Iiiiiiinteresting... We Can’t Inflate Our Way Out of the Debt Crisis. Basically, "[C]reating currency isn’t like, say, diluting shareholders in a company. You’re always rolling your debt, and the market’s response to an inflationary strategy is (not surprisingly) higher interest rates." And inflation has negative side effects, including, "reduced economic growth, increased social and political stress and added strain on the poor — whose incomes aren’t likely to keep pace with the increase in food prices and other basics. That, in turn, could increase pressure on the government to provide aid — aid which would need to keep pace with inflation."

The sham recovery

Robert Reich on The Sham Recovery:
Are we finally in a recovery? Who’s “we,” kemosabe? Big global companies, Wall Street, and high-income Americans who hold their savings in financial instruments are clearly doing better. As to the rest of us – small businesses along Main Streets, and middle and lower-income Americans – forget it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

I like Fark's headline for this story: Kansas City closes half its schools, most of which it wasn't using anyway.

If only there were... hmm... maybe a ten or twenty million people sitting around without jobs who could be persuaded to teach and maintain our schools. Too bad everyone's so busy making flying cars, curing cancer and other shit way more cool than educating our children.

The Empire Continues to Strike Back

The Empire Continues to Strike Back: Team Obama Propaganda Campaign Reaches Fever Pitch:
The reason that people who can discern clearly what is afoot are so deeply disturbed is simple, and all the comments touch on it. The campaign to defend Geithner and Emanuel, both architects of the administration’s finance friendly policies has gone beyond what most people would see as spin into such an aggressive effort to manipulate popular perceptions that it is not a stretch to call it propaganda. ...

[By 2009] The financial services industry had become systematically predatory. Its victims now extended well beyond precarious, clueless, and sometimes undisciplined consumers who took on too much debt via credit cards with gotcha features that successfully enticed into a treadmill of chronic debt, or now infamous subprime and option-ARM mortgages.

Over twenty years of malfeasance, from the savings and loan crisis (where fraud was a leading cause of bank failures) to a catastrophic set of blow-ups in over the counter derivatives in 1994, which produced total losses of $1.5 trillion, the biggest wipeout since the 1929 crash, through a 1990s subprime meltdown, dot com chicanery, Enron and other accounting scandals, and now the global financial crisis, the industry each time had been able to beat neuter meaningful reform. But this time, the scale of the damage was so great that it extended beyond investors to hapless bystanders, ordinary citizens who were also paying via their taxes and job losses. And unlike the past, where news of financial blow-ups was largely confined to the business section, the public could not miss the scale of the damage and how it came about, and was outraged.

The widespread, vocal opposition to the TARP was evidence that a once complacent populace had been roused. Reform, if proposed with energy and confidence, wasn’t a risk; not only was it badly needed, it was just what voters wanted.

But incoming president Obama failed to act. Whether he failed to see the opportunity, didn’t understand it, or was simply not interested is moot. Rather than bring vested banking interests to heel, the Obama administration instead chose to reconstitute, as much as possible, the very same industry whose reckless pursuit of profit had thrown the world economy off the cliff. There would be no Nixon goes to China moment from the architects of the policies that created the crisis, namely Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and Director of the National Economic Council Larry Summers.
The Keynesian faction of the capitalist ruling class is moribund. They no longer have a grip on the Democratic party. The Democratic party is attempting to compete head-to-head with the Republican party to represent the Randian faction: the Democrats' big selling point is their popular credibility, especially among the non-batshit-crazy non-fundamentalist Christian population.

The problem, though, is that the Democratic party is losing its popular credibility among the sensible population. There's no viable alternative, so sensible people will mostly stay home on election day or make protest votes. Furthermore, the Republican party has made good progress solidifying a base of authoritarian submissives, who will tolerate a considerable amount of hardship for its own sake. Socialist, communist and anarchist politics have become so discredited that they exert no popular force. Unlike Roosevelt, Obama has no socialist left pushing him to meaningful reform of capitalism.

Keynesian economics is indeed crypto-socialism, socialism dressed in capitalist clothes. It features the essence of socialism: exerting social control over and appropriating social benefit from capital. It dresses socialism in the capitalist clothes of debt, regulation, and taxation, which would be in effect — if the people actually owned the capital in name — investment, management, and return. And unsurprisingly, because socialism really is more in line with economic reality than capitalism, even half-assed crypto-socialism actually works in the real world. The evidence is clear: for nearly a century, the more socialist Keynesian the government has acted, the better the economy has performed, even for the capitalist class; the more Randian the government has acted, the worse the economy has performed... even for the capitalist class.

Many members of the capitalist class are in a Prisoner's Dilemma. They know that a return to Randianism will result in half or more of the capitalist class dropping back to the professional-managerial middle class, the working class or even the unemployable. Randianism is definitely not in their mutual self-interest. On the other hand, if Randianism prevails, the capitalist class will punish the Keynesians; if Keynesianism prevails, the Randian faction will not be punished. No one in the capitalist class can support Keynesianism unless they're sure it can prevail, and only pressure from the people, now absent, can provide this certainty. The regression to Randianism is by now inevitable and unstoppable.

The United States is an interesting contrast to China. The United States in the mid to late 20th century had strong elements of socialism dressed in capitalist clothing. China, especially in the late 20th and early 21st century, has strong elements of capitalism dressed in communist clothing. It may be the case that the name is as important as the reality: China is now easily embracing strong Keynesian measures; their communism-in-name perhaps gives them the legitimacy to do so. In contrast the United States is failing to embrace Keynesian measures precisely because our capitalism-in-name does not give us that legitimacy. It may well turn out that China's communism-in-name gives it the social legitimacy to move to something resembling real socialism; Mao, despite a four decade interregnum, may have built stronger than even modern Western communists imagine.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Voluntary cooperation

One theme in political philosophy is the conflict between authoritarianism and anti-authoritarianism, or, for want of a better word, liberalism. This conflict is still active: there is today a non-trivial subset of society that are authoritarian submissives, and those who will step up to command them.

Authoritarianism is a specific thing, briefly the idea that submission to the will of another is an intrinsic good and any independence and autonomy in conflict with the commands of an authority an intrinsic evil. But opposition to authoritarianism is not a specific thing. Any compromise of the absolute, unconditional nature of authority constitutes anti-authoritarianism, from the absolute opposition to anyone ever conforming herself to the will of another under any circumstances to merely the idea that a subject has at least the right to protest an order, even if she is ultimately forced to comply over her objections.

Anti-authoritarianism has been around at least since the beginning of the 18th century, and arguably goes back to ancient Greece. In the West, anti-authoritarianism has, in one form or another, been the predominant political philosophy since the late 18th and early 19th centuries bourgeois revolutions, and goes by the general label of "liberalism". Just because an general component of political philosophy is predominant doesn't mean it's unchallenged. That the 20th and early 21st century "conservative" revolutions in the West are indeed seen as radical revolutions seeking to overturn the liberal status quo is by itself strong evidence for the present predominance of liberalism.

Denying the underlying narrative of authoritarianism — that authority must be obeyed just because it is an authority — demands a counter-narrative. should one person ever subordinate her immediate will — even a little — to the will of one or many others? And if so, when, under what circumstances, and to what degree?

At least under present circumstances, we have to say that yes indeed, sometimes an individual must subordinate his will to the will of others. This view is not authoritarian, because it denies that a person must always, unconditionally submit: sometimes is not always. We are forced by physical necessity to cooperate; there are benefits we must have to survive that can be gained only by working for a mutual goal. Furthermore, we know there are situations such that:
  • If everyone in a group cooperates, everyone is better off than if no one cooperates
  • If everyone else cooperates, any individual is always better off if he does not individually cooperate
In other words, there are situations where mutual cooperation itself creates a "benefit" of being a "free rider".

One good way of managing this situation is creating the ideal of voluntary cooperation. Voluntary cooperation consists of the following premises:
  1. An individual can join any group with the consent of its existing members
  2. By joining a group, an individual agrees to cooperate for the mutual benefit of the members of the group. By implication, a person will join a group if and only if she believes that cooperation will be more beneficial than independence or membership in any other group
  3. If an individual does not believe that cooperating within the group is in her best interest, she may leave at any time, taking her share of the physical assets of the group with her.
  4. If the rest of the members of a group do not believe that a specific member is cooperating, they may expel that member from the group. (Technically, the rest of the members can leave the original group and form a new group without the offending members.)
It seems clear that voluntary cooperation will "naturally" maximize not just the "selfish" but also the mutual benefit of a large group of individuals, without specifying at all what those mutual benefits happen to be. The maximization of mutual benefit emerges from the structure of the system rather than from any particular definition of what constitutes benefit. It also seems clear that voluntary association is arbitrarily meta-recursive: Groups can join or leave super-groups, super-groups can join and leave super-duper-groups, ad infinitum.

However, actual voluntary cooperation is not presently achievable.* The rub is (3). Obviously, if an individual were forcibly constrained to be in a group, we could not call it voluntary cooperation; an individual in a group could be exploited rather being guaranteed to enjoy the mutual benefits of group cooperation. But also, if it's not possible for an individual to survive and prosper individually, (3) is, in principle, equally compromised. It's even more compromised if there are a limited number of groups, and especially if there are significant costs of forming and/or joining a group.

*I'm not saying (at least not yet) that any group actually believes or proposes that actual voluntary cooperation is or is not achievable.

It's not at all clear that actual voluntary cooperation would ever be achievable. Regardless of group participation, it's still physically possible for individuals in a group to physically coerce individuals in other groups. It's not at all clear that equality of coercive force between groups would emerge from the principles of voluntary cooperation. Indeed it seems clear using perturbation theory that inequality of force would emerge. Suppose one group had a slight advantage of coercive force over another. The first group could then recruit new members by offering the mutual benefit of coercively exploiting the second. To the extent that the size of a group offered it a coercive advantage, a small disequilibrium would have a positive feedback effect magnifying rather than dampening the disequilibrium.

Actual voluntary cooperation might also not be economically possible under any circumstances. Presently, an individual cannot even survive completely on his own; membership in some group is absolutely compelled by physical necessity. But even if individual survival were possible, it is not at all certain that living a "good" life would ever be possible as an individual. It might well be the case that people would always define a "good" life as enjoying benefits available only by cooperation. Even if every person actually had a Mr. Fusion and a replicator, it might be that interplanetary or interstellar travel was considered necessary to live a full and complete life. In much the same sense, even today we define a good and dignified life as not just having enough to eat and sufficient shelter to survive a snowstorm, but having a clean and comfortable dwelling, healthy and nutritious food, access to not just life-saving but also life-enhancing medical and dental care, access to communications and media, and other benefits over and above sheer survival.

But it's not at all necessary that voluntary cooperation be actually achievable to be a useful idea. Even though for example Newtonian mechanics is an enormously useful idea for modeling the behavior of physical objects on the surface of the Earth, even though in practice air resistance and gravity make ideal behavior actually impossible. In much the same sense, we can use voluntary cooperation as a theoretical ideal to measure the quality of an actual social system: We can define a system to be good to the extent that it creates an outcome similar to the outcome we would predict from actual voluntary cooperation. The abstract ideal of voluntary cooperation gives us an objective measurement of the quality of a social system. (Note that having an objective measurement does not compromise meta-ethical subjective relativism: we are still making an arbitrary decision to privilege voluntary cooperation as our standard of measure.)

All "liberal" political philosophies explicitly or implicitly reference the abstract ideal of voluntary cooperation as the standard of measure of the quality of an actual social structure. Even crypto-authoritarians must at least be crypto- and give lip service to voluntary cooperation as a standard of measure. All arguments over political philosophy consist of either what benefits would result from the abstract ideal of voluntary cooperation or to what degree the benefits of some existing or proposed social structure would actually match the theoretical benefits of voluntary cooperation. Even its proponents of capitalism assert that bourgeois democracy best matches the benefits of voluntary cooperation under present physical circumstances. But note that any social system that is not actually voluntary cooperation is not actually voluntary cooperation; at best it is something other than actual voluntary cooperation that more or less resembles voluntary cooperation. We can at best say that a social system implements effective rather than actual voluntary cooperation.

Anarchists are not at all explicit about what objectively constitutes "institutional" or "hierarchical" authority. Merely saying that the authority of expertise does not constitute hierarchical authority is insufficient. It's also somewhat misleading: one can use expertise to exercise actual power over others. Physicians, for example, are presently using (or allowing others, — insurance companies — to use) their expertise for truly staggering economic exploitation.

There are two ways, then, to infer a meaning of "hierarchical" or "institutional" authority to which anarchists object. The first is any coercion or necessity that causes the outcome of a system to deviate substantially from the abstract ideal of voluntary cooperation. There's nothing "wrong" with this definition; the only problem is that it doesn't at all differentiate anarchism from liberalism in general.

The alternative reading is that hierarchical or institutional authority is any coercion that deviates from actual voluntary cooperation. This reading is more problematic.

One way to achieve effective voluntary cooperation is to privilege some individuals with the power to make sure that other individuals do not actually behave contrary to the principles of actual voluntary cooperation. For example, we privilege police, courts and prisons to ensure (at least in theory) that rapists and murderers do not "infiltrate" the group of non-raping, non-murdering people. We do so by technically violating the principles of actual voluntary cooperation by forcing rapists and murderers to join the prison population group. While we are (in theory) violating the principle of actual voluntary cooperation, the results of this violation implements effective voluntary cooperation: the outcome of a system where we violently coerce rapists and murderers resembles a system where the group of non-raping non-murdering people could effectively exclude a rapist or murderer.

Anarchists make (as best I can discern) a not-at-all stupid argument that privileging people in this way cannot result in effective voluntary cooperation. Privileging some individuals to maintain effective voluntary cooperation will result instead in that group coercing others for their own exploitative benefit. I'm not at all confident that this argument is false or unsound. But what's the alternative?

The only alternative I can see is that the social ideas prevalent in the population are such that effective voluntary cooperation occurs without any individuals being privileged, even putatively to coercively maintain effective voluntary cooperation. The problem comes in how to make these social ideas prevalent in the population, and how to keep them prevalent.

Exhortation and positive propaganda, i.e. trying to convince a lot of people of the value of these social ideas, does not seem sufficient. Again, we can use perturbation theory to criticize this method. Suppose almost everyone really did have all the social ideas necessary to effect voluntary cooperation. But suppose that a few people did not have these ideas. Because our society ex hypothesi effects voluntary cooperation, these few people can freely — without violent coercion or coercion by necessity — leave the group of people with the "right" sort of social ideas and create a group with the "wrong" sort of social ideas. Suppose these "wrong" ideas included the ideas of within-group cooperation, but rejected the idea of inter-group noninterference: they work together as a group, but think that it's OK to coerce other groups. Voluntary cooperation does entail any "natural" or systematic way this group would not grow arbitrarily large, large enough to actually benefit from inter-group coercion, a relative benefit not availed by other groups.

Note that this argument is not the naturalistic fallacy, which is the fallacious conclusion that because some state of affairs actually exists, it is therefore preferable. This is an argument from "human nature", but it's an argument from a deep character of human nature: our ability to form novel social ideas. It is not an argument that the present state of human social ideas constitutes an ineluctable, physically necessary condition.

It's also not a slam-dunk argument proving that the second reading of anarchism is definitely impossible. We simply do not know what's possible and impossible; we only know what is or is not probable or plausible given definite initial circumstances. It may be the case that some set of social ideas, and perhaps some method of how human beings transmit and select against social ideas, would effect voluntary cooperation without either privileged coercion and by somehow "naturally" dampening dissent from shared social ideas.

But "Anything's possible," is not by itself a very persuasive argument. If the anarchists (of the second reading) ever figure out how — even in theory — to implement a society that can effect voluntary cooperation without somehow privileging someone to maintain cooperative behavior, I'm all ears. But until then, I'm going to focus my energy on not eliminating but improving social institutions and authority structures to better serve the needs and mutual benefit of all humanity.

Progressives and macroeconomic policy

Macroeconomic Policy: The Elephant in the Room:
International conferences on poverty and the environment come and go. There’s always a big pachyderm in the meeting room. It’s got the words “macroeconomic policy” written on its forehead. Nobody wants to talk about it. ...

Discussing macroeconomic policies raises awareness about the inner workings of the neo-liberal model and its political economy. Suddenly, the relation between cuts in social expenditures and a primary surplus becomes crystal clear. The rapport between controlling inflation and holding back aggregate demand (all too frequently through repressing real wages) turns out to be self-evident. Pretty soon people are talking about how macroeconomic policy is subordinated to the priorities of financial capital.
It's a philosophical error, however, to talk about macroeconomic policy being specifically "subordinated" to the priorities of financial capital. In a finance capitalist system, macroeconomic policy is the priorities of finance capital. You might as well talk about government policy being "subordinated" to the priorities of the elected officials.

In a capitalist system, the democratic and popular components of the formal government can never serve in anything but an advisory capacity to the true capitalist rulers of society, in much the same sense that unless the monarchy is entirely stripped of its coercive power (the power to raise armies and command the police), a parliament serves only as an advisers to the monarch, and can gain real power only temporarily, when the monarchy is intrinsically weak.

Macroeconomic policy will never be the priorities of the people until the people actually own the capital. Until such time, macroeconomic policy will benefit the people only under those circumstances where the benefit of the people happens to coincide with the benefit of the private owners of capital, or when the private owners are temporarily weak or conflicted (as they were in the 1930s). When those benefits conflict, the private owners of capital will prevail: that's what it means to have private ownership of capital.

(via Mark Thoma)

Rawls on Marx

Rawls on Marx; December 1973. According to Rawls,
Marx doesn't make any attempt to present an argument that capitalism is unjust, nor any concept of justice which would back up such an argument. Moreover, we have vitriolic criticisms of utopian socialists who did condemn capitalism on the grounds of justice. Marx asserts on the contrary, that capitalism is perfectly fair, perfectly just. Why so? ...

[Marx] thinks of justice as a political and juridical conception which is associated with a particular conception of the state and society; so it belongs to the prehistory of mankind. Given his picture of human society, these political and juridical institutions belong to the superstructure, and reflect the workings of the mode of production. For each mode of production there is a conception of justice appropriate to it, at least in prehistory.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Is anarchism just anti-authoritarianism?

In my previous post on Why are anarchists against authority and hierarchy? I drew the conclusion that anarchism opposes any "artificially" concentrated power, i.e. power concentrated other than by the immediate, intentional will of the participants. But there's an alternative reading: that anarchism represents the much broader position of anti-authoritarianism.

We are fortunate that the brilliant Dr. Altemeyer has given us a detailed, precise and scientific description of authoritarianism, which I can briefly summarize as submission and obedience to another's will as an intrinsic good, it it good in and of itself. If obedience is an intrinsic good, then it is also unconditional: an authoritarian submissive will fail to obey only because of the imperfections and exigencies of the real world.

The FAQ quotes Bakunin saying that authority entails that "the masses... must submit at all times." The FAQ goes on to distinguish absolute from participatory power:
[I]n any group undertaking there is a need [to] make and stick by agreements... [but] there are two [fundamentally] different ways of co-ordinating individual activity within groups -- either by authoritarian means or by libertarian means. Proudhon, in relation to workplaces, makes the difference clear:
either the workman. . . will be simply the employee of the proprietor-capitalist-promoter; or he will participate. . . [and] have a voice in the council, in a word he will become an associate.
Proudhon is clearly distinguishing absolute authority from participatory decision making.

This reading, however, poses problems. First, it would make anarchism if not actually trivial then at least commonplace. There are admittedly a lot of real, hard-core authoritarians in the world, even in the West, but authoritarianism is still a minority philosophy. Even garden-variety capitalist democracy has many participatory features; under normal circumstances even low-wage workers are not chattel slaves. If most everyone were an anarchist (and even authoritarians have to at least give lip service to participation), then anarchism wouldn't mean very much; it would be the Mom and apple pie of the left.

More telling, though, is that this distinction is trivially easy to denote in common English. There's simply no reason to bring terms like "hierarchy" and "institution", which the article uses without explicit definition and with implications subtly or obviously different from ordinary usage (indeed the author seems to use "hierarchy" to label a laundry list of evils with little in common other than his or her dislike.) When someone uses complicated terminology to label a simple idea, you should smell a rhetorical rat.

The author gives us a garden-variety fallacy of differentiation:
Of course, it will be pointed out that in any collective undertaking there is a need for co-operation and co-ordination and this need to "subordinate" the individual to group activities is a form of authority. Therefore, it is claimed, a democratically managed group is just as "authoritarian" as one based on hierarchical authority. Anarchists are not impressed by such arguments. Yes, we reply, of course in any group undertaking there is a need make and stick by agreements but anarchists argue that to use the word "authority" to describe two fundamentally different ways of making decisions is playing with words. It obscures the fundamental difference between free association and hierarchical imposition and confuses co-operation with command (as we note in section H.4, Marxists are particularly fond of this fallacy). Simply put, there are two different ways of co-ordinating individual activity within groups -- either by authoritarian means or by libertarian means.
The fallacy of differentiation consists of concluding that because there is some difference between two things, the two things have nothing in common. "Free association" is participatory; "hierarchical imposition" is absolute, therefore there is nothing in common between the two.

The quoted passage is riddled with fallacies. First, the author puts the mirror fallacy of identification* in critics' mouths: democratic organization has something in common with "hierarchical authority", therefore they are both just as (i.e. identically) "authoritarian". Indeed, the cited section** does not assert that critics even make this argument, much less rebut it. Second, the author employs the fallacy fallacy: a counter-argument faulty on its merits does not support the original position. Third, the author blatantly switches horses in mid-stream, moving from "democratic association" to "free association".

*Two things have something in common, therefore they are identical
**Indeed that section is also rife with fallacy.

These collections of fallacies are common in persuasive rhetoric and propaganda. The tactic is to first to draw the reader's attention to some obvious absurdity or evil (e.g. absolute, unconditional authority), then to state one's admirable in opposition to the obvious absurdity. The twist then comes by subtly or obviously labeling anyone who disagrees with your own particular form of opposition as therefore supporting the obvious absurdity.

The more I read the FAQ, the more I'm convinced that anarchists are self-deluded bullshit artists with lack of intelligence, integrity, honesty and morals that would shame a Christian fundamentalist creationist.

5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted

5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted: The video game as Skinner Box and the alienation of labor:
[A]ccording to everything expert Malcolm Gladwell, to be satisfied with your job you need three things, and I bet most of you don't even have two of them:

Autonomy (that is, you have some say in what you do day to day);

Complexity (so it's not mind-numbing repetition);

Connection Between Effort and Reward (i.e. you actually see the awesome results of your hard work).

Most people, particularly in the young gamer demographics, don't have this in their jobs or in any aspect of their everyday lives. But the most addictive video games are specifically geared to give us all three... or at least the illusion of all three.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The economy is worse than I thought!


Why are anarchists against authority and hierarchy? part 1

It's a bit subtle, and not trivial to pull out in a coherent way, but it appears that this section of the Anarchist FAQ, Why are anarchists against authority and hierarchy? entails that coercive power should never be concentrated "abstractly" or generally by social construction.

It's clear that the FAQ opposes any "artificially" concentrated power. The FAQ quotes Bakunin, "[W]e wish... to abolish artificial, privileged, legal, and official influences... [N]o one should be entrusted with power, inasmuch as anyone invested with authority must... became an oppressor and exploiter of society. [emphasis added]" Martha A. Ackelsberg adds, "[T]the exercise of power in any institutionalised form — whether economic, political or sexual — brutalises both the wielder of power and the one over whom it is exercised. [emphasis added]"

Instead, any concentration of coercive power should be by the specific, immediate intention of the people involved. Again, Bakunin states, "[W]e hardly wish to abolish the effect of any individual's or any group of individual's natural influence upon the masses. [emphasis added]" People should be "taking part in a decision and listening to alternative viewpoints and experts ("natural influence") before making [their minds] up."

We have an immediate problem, though. What can Bakunin mean by the contrast of "artificial" and "natural"? In ordinary English, this contrast denotes human-made and non-human-made. But of course all social constructions are human made, and therefore artificial. Clearly, he must mean something different: we must interpret "artificial" as concentrated generally by social construction (i.e. "believing in" laws, police, prisons, etc.) rather than concentrated by the direct, immediate will of the people involved.

In a trivial sense (a sense I of course do not believe is specifically intended by the authors) this definition is vacuous as a political philosophy. Every person is ineluctably in possession of coercive power, by virtue of his fists and feet and at least the potential of using weapons. We have laws, police, prisons, officials, etc. because people individually choose to "believe in" and comply with these institutions, rather than individually choose to concentrate their own coercive power and resist these institutions by force of arms. Indeed, the coercive power of these institutions is maintained by at least some individuals naturally deciding to concentrate their power by joining the police and the military.

Of course, the FAQ argues that because our individual opinions are shaped by societal institutions, institutions that have "wrongly" concentrated coercive power, the decision to comply with or join these institutions is ipso facto artificial.
[T]he way people behave is more a product of the institutions in which we are raised than of any inherent nature. In other words, social relationships shape the individuals involved. This means that the various groups individuals create have traits, behaviours and outcomes that cannot be understood by reducing them to the individuals within them. That is, groups consist not only of individuals, but also relationships between individuals and these relationships will affect those subject to them.
But the FAQ understates the case. The way people specifically behave is completely a product of social institutions and constructions; all we get "naturally" are certain emotional propensities. In a social sense, we are nothing but the social constructions we learn and imitate from those around us. We don't even have language naturally; all we have naturally is a propensity to learn whatever language or languages predominate our childhood social environment.

The division into "natural" and "artificial" is not just metaphorical, it is actively misleading. It leads us to think about social constructions as being differentiable by those coming from "outside" and those already "inside". But (barring actual conquest, which is not at issue in this context) outside what? It cannot be outside our intrinsic individual nature, because nothing is intrinsic except a propensity to absorb extrinsic social constructions. It cannot be outside humanity, because everything is inside humanity. The FAQ makes the actual distinction between power concentrated by general social construction, rather than by the specific, immediate intention of the people involved. But this distinction is a good/bad distinction, not an inside/outside distinction.

Indeed, the misleading "inside/outside" distinction pervades this chapter of the FAQ. Bakunin says,
[A]uthority... [is the] eminently theological, metaphysical and political idea that the masses, always incapable of governing themselves, must submit at all times to the benevolent yoke of a wisdom and a justice, which in one way or another, is imposed from above. [emphasis original]
I share Bakunin's objections to a kind of authority, the kind of authority to which the masses must submit at all times, unconditionally. But the thesis of this chapter is that this sort of authority is bad because it is "artificial", because it comes from outside or "is imposed from above". But in reality this kind of authority becomes artificial and "outside" because those authorities insist on unconditional submission.

This inversion of causation is at the heart of many of the inconsistencies, ambiguities, paradoxes and vagueness of anarchism as a political philosophy.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

On the necessity of a revolution

A reactionary commenter at Comrade PhysioProf opines:
I am absolutely a violent threat. I despise the arrogant, elitist scum that post here. I would happily choke you until the life left your soulless carcass. If we were to share the same room in a physical sense you would and should be fearful of your well being. You are the enemy, a threat to the well being and happiness of myself and my children and grand children. Your danger is in your self righteous ignorance. Should we have the misfortune to continue farther along the path of the statist progressive oppression, then I for one will welcome whatever necessities may be required to remove the tyrannical elitists from power.

You claim that I am uninterested in reason or logic, yet you are the one that refuses to acknowledge the documented failures of your ideology. You claim that I am the one who wishes push my opinions on others while in fact it is your ideology and the leaders that you support that wish to push their thoughts and programs upon the rest of us, actually must push them on us, “for our own good” in your not so humble opinion, no doubt. ...

I am not the one pushing anything on anyone. I wish only to be left alone to live my life how I choose, not how some elitist bureaucrat chooses. That freedom is important enough to me to defend it with my life, or yours. So yes, my progressive enemy, feel the threat, it is real.
Anyone who is familiar with RaptureReady, Stormfront or the general eliminationist rhetoric even in the mainstream "conservative" venues can call this attitude aberrant or idiosyncratic: it is typical of the reactionary, Randian, eliminationist right.

Even if our goals were no larger than merely keeping the relatively liberal version of capitalism established in the early- to mid-twentieth century, we would be facing determined violent opposition. But the liberal democrats have proven time and again that they do not want to acknowledge or meet this threat while it is still relatively weak. No, these violent, eliminationist, "fascist" bastards are going to take over; the only question is: who will lead the resistance?

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Anarchism in action

This is what I'm talking about when I mention unreasoning hostility and intellectual dishonesty. He's frothing worse than Ken Ham looking at a fossil.

One swallow does not a summer make, but I don't think db0 is making anarchism look all that attractive.

He's sending a lot of readers to my blog, though, so it's not all bad.

The socialization of capital in Malaysia

A Tale of Two Recoveries: Malaysia vs Germany, part II gives us an example of the macroeconomic value of socializing capital, even partially:
Malaysia’s initial response to the [1997/98 Asian financial] crisis was a textbook illustration of how to exacerbate, not alleviate, a financial crisis. ...

The Malaysian economy experienced a contraction of credit growth from 30 percent in 1997 to minus 5 percent in 1998, reflecting a massive pullback of bank loans. The ringgit plunged, as capital outflows accelerated. A real estate collapse loomed.

Ultimately, seeing the failure in these policies, Prime Minister Mahathir sacked [Finance Minister] Anwar, and re-imposed capital controls to insulate his economy from the deleterious consequences of rapid hot money outflows... Monetary and fiscal policy became expansionary, the ringgit was pegged to the US dollar, and crisis credit conditions began to diminish as domestic rates were reduced drastically. Although Western finance ministries and institutional investors protested apocalyptically and predicted that Malaysia would remain beyond the pale of the investment world for the foreseeable future, six months later even The Economist, one of the IMF’s great apologists, was forced to acknowledge that the embrace of capital controls had done “short-term wonders” in assisting recovery.

Economics and value

Roger Ebert is trying to monetize his site. In a comment, I suggested that he's in a position to challenge the dominant social and economic idea that without exception everyone "ought" to be paid according to the value they produce, regardless of their overall economic position.

This idea sounds not just good, but intuitively obvious. It is, however, incorrect; it's very obviousness prevents us from examining the idea critically.

The first problem with this idea is that a free market is not intended to and does not exist to distribute reward commensurate with value produced. A free market distributes costs according to the relationship between scarcity and value (i.e. use-value).

Consider an ordinary automobile. There are lots of components of an automobile that have marginal use value. A car with cheap vinyl upholstery still has real use-value; a car with rich Corinthian leather* has more use-value; the difference is the marginal use-value. But a automobile is only reducible so far; at its core is an irreducibly complex** system: a frame, an engine, fuel, a transmission, wheels, brakes and a control system. All of these elements add the "marginal" use-value between a working car and a hunk of scrap; their contribution is clearly not additive. Furthermore, the labor involved in manufacturing a car — both the irreducibly complex core as well as the components that add marginal value — is irreducibly complex: from the collection and processing of the raw materials, the production of the components, their transportation and assembly, and the administration and coordination of all of these efforts. Again, take out one piece and you do not have any automobile at all. Furthermore, the addition of marginal value (i.e. rich Corinthian leather) to an automobile occurs only when that marginal value exceeds the value of producing another basic automobile.

**The argument (such as it is) in evolutionary biology is
not whether or not present-day biological systems are irreducibly complex; the argument is whether or not irreducibly complex systems can evolve non-teleologically, which they can.

If a free market were really concerned about distributing reward based on value, we would expect everyone to be paid more-or-less the same, since everyone is always (or so the theory goes) producing whatever is of the most value. But this is clearly not the case. There are enormous differences, six or more orders of magnitude of difference, between income. It is implausible that people intrinsically vary a million-fold by their value-producing ability; we must believe that Bill Gates could by himself produce more than a large city full of African subsistence farmers.

Furthermore, the capitalist system is not a free market; it does not even behave as we logically expect an ideal free market would behave. In a free market, individuals bend their efforts to eliminating or mitigating every scarcity. If oil is in short supply, individuals in a free market look for more oil or in create alternatives. If there aren't enough engineers or administrators, individuals train more engineers and administrators, automate their tasks, or create alternatives to get the job done with talents and abilities more prevalent in society.

But everywhere we look, we see instead of being eliminated, we see scarcities being artificially and intentionally preserved. From the egregious and gratuitous "nickel and diming*" of the working class, the social barriers to entry into the professional-managerial middle class, and the obstacles placed in the way of the middle class accumulating capital**, we see a system that preserves and maintains scarcities for the privilege of those who control them.

*See Barbara Ehrenreich's book, Nickel and Dimed.
Bait and Switch and Fear of Falling, also by Ehrenreich.

Fundamentally, we "should" not reward individual for the value they produce because in an organized, industrial society we cannot measure the value any person — from janitor to CEO — individually produces.

Jon Swift is dead

Al WeiselAl Weisel, more popularly known as the faux-conservative blogger Jon Swift and the Best. Blogger. Ever. died February 27, 2010 of an aortic aneurysm. Tom Watson has the story.

Sic transit gloria mundi. You'll be sorely missed.

Appearance and reality in public life

Appearance and reality in public life
So what kind of democracy do we have? Do our institutions do a great job of establishing the public interest over the medium term, or have our institutions been captured by private interests, leaving essentially no real power in the hands of citizens?
The author argues for the latter.

(via Mark Thoma)

Understanding anarchism

I frankly admit that I do not understand anarchism, either left (libertarian socialism) or right (big-ell Libertarianism). I've concluded that my failure to understand anarchism is because the philosophy is fundamentally incoherent: there is no "there" there. My attempts to understand anarchism philosophically have been met not with correction but with hostility and blatant intellectual dishonesty and bad faith, in a manner very similar to Christian responses to understanding Christianity. I draw the conclusion that vocal advocates of anarchism do not have any sort of deep understanding of their own philosophy. (A plausible alternative conclusion is that they do not care whether or not I understand anarchism. Because I'm not an adherent I am therefore an enemy. People of course do in fact freely choose their enemies. I have a lot of enemies; a few more anarchists doesn't bother me.)

Of course, I might be wrong — as I might be wrong about each and every belief I have — and my understanding of anarchism is always subject to revision based on new evidence and argument.

I do not understand what anarchists mean by "hierarchical authority" (or the related concept of Libertarian and right-anarchism of "initiation of coercion"). The best explanations I've read of these concepts boil down to the presence or exercise of authority or coercion the anarchist does not herself like. There's nothing at all wrong about disliking and condemning some particular exercise of authority or coercion. What I do not understand are the broad conclusions and anarchists seem to draw from the presence of objectionable authority and coercion and the principles they endorse in response to those conclusions. Purported explanations seem to rely on metaphor: anarchists, for example, don't want anyone to be "above" anyone else: in this case "above" is a metaphor; anarchists do not of course object to one person being taller than another.

I do not understand how is anarchism is different from capitalist democracy on the right and democratic communism (as opposed to Soviet or Chinese oligarchical communism) on the left. In their ideal forms, I don't understand the difference between left- and right-anarchism (libertarian socialism and Libertarianism/anarcho-capitalism) other than beliefs about people would actually behave under ideal circumstances; circumstances that differ so radically from present-day circumstances that I'm unable to grasp any evidentiary or scientific basis for their beliefs.

The closest I've come to a detailed and coherent account of anarchism is Systemantics, John Gall's witty and insightful examinations of how systems work and, more importantly, how they fail. The author concludes that systems are, by and large, not merely useless but counterproductive; we should simply do without systems wherever possible. Many of his principles conform to my own experience of building small- and large-scale systems; the principles that
A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that works. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.
seem without exception, at least for certain definitions of "simple" and "complex".

On the other hand, the author presents very little evidence for his conclusions, and the evidence he does deign to present is cherry-picked, presented without context or detail, and his interpretation blatantly biased. For example, the author notes that the modern produce distribution system fails to deliver fresh, tree-ripened apples to the ordinary grocery store consumer, and concludes that the produce distribution system is therefore a failure.

More importantly, while the author describes at length the ridiculous pathologies of systems, he offers little in the way of explaining why systems pervade human society. His only explanation is there are some people, "systems-people", who are mean and bad and fat and dumb and have magically risen to positions of authority.

I'm obviously interpreting, but I see pervading all forms of anarchism the sense that those wielding the objectionable sorts of authority have magically gained this authority, almost as if they have landed in spaceships and enslaved humanity with superior technology. (Alternatively anarchists seem to reify authority from an abstract relationship between human beings to a concrete entity that can by itself be fought or eliminated.)

I do think that many of the systems actually in place — notably capitalism — are pathological and profoundly and deeply broken. And in conditions of massive oppression, exploitation and outright failure, I cannot condemn simply standing up and saying, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore," without offering a coherent alternative. I also understand and appreciate the value of people who are willing to oppose The System simply because it is The System, regardless of its particular characteristics. While I do not agree with Gall that systems are generally bad, with good systems rare and entirely accidental, I do think that any system that cannot tolerate and even encourage with good humor a certain amount "sand in the gears", i.e. opposition and resistance, is not a system suitable for human beings.

In other words, I'm not sure it's even important for me to understand anarchism. If anarchism labels an affinity group of people who simply want to oppose The System without worrying overmuch about the specifics, then good for them. Although it's not my personal affinity, anarchists in this sense must exist and to a certain extent thrive in any good system, especially a system of governance.

On the other hand, if anarchism really were, as many of its proponents suggest, a coherent, rational and practical political philosophy, then I do want to know about it and be rationally convinced.

A New Age of Monopolies

Mark Thoma points us to Thomas Frank's essay, A New Age of Monopolies [subscriber-only content], a review of Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction by Barry C. Lynn:
Mr. Lynn ... describes companies that swallow their rivals and then, with competitive pressure diminished, set about "destroying product variety and diversity." ... We learn of entire industries where competitors have grown so close to one another that a collapse at one company would probably bring down many of the others as well.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Cargo Cult Science

[This essay has been on the web for a long time, but the various incarnations I link to keep going away. So here's the essay in its entirety. I'll take it down if Dr. Feynman's heirs or estate ask me to.]

Cargo Cult Science
by Richard Feynman

Adapted from the Caltech commencement address given in 1974.

During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas--which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn't work, to eliminate it. This method became organized, of course, into science. And it developed very well, so that we are now in the scientific age. It is such a scientific age, in fact that we have difficulty in understanding how witch doctors could ever have existed, when nothing that they proposed ever really worked--or very little of it did.

But even today I meet lots of people who sooner or later get me into a conversation about UFOS, or astrology, or some form of mysticism, expanded consciousness, new types of awareness, ESP, and so forth. And I've concluded that it's not a scientific world.

Most people believe so many wonderful things that I decided to investigate why they did. And what has been referred to as my curiosity for investigation has landed me in a difficulty where I found so much junk that I'm overwhelmed. First I started out by investigating various ideas of mysticism, and mystic experiences. I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that. Then I went to Esalen, which is a hotbed of this kind of thought (it's a wonderful place; you should go visit there). Then I became overwhelmed. I didn't realize how much there was.

At Esalen there are some large baths fed by hot springs situated on a ledge about thirty feet above the ocean. One of my most pleasurable experiences has been to sit in one of those baths and watch the waves crashing onto the rocky shore below, to gaze into the clear blue sky above, and to study a beautiful nude as she quietly appears and settles into the bath with me.

One time I sat down in a bath where there was a beautiful girl sitting with a guy who didn't seem to know her. Right away I began thinking, "Gee! How am I gonna get started talking to this beautiful nude babe?"

I'm trying to figure out what to say, when the guy says to her, I'm, uh, studying massage. Could I practice on you?"

"Sure," she says. They get out of the bath and she lies down on a massage table nearby.

I think to myself, "What a nifty line! I can never think of anything like that!" He starts to rub her big toe. "I think I feel it, "he says. "I feel a kind of dent--is that the pituitary?"

I blurt out, "You're a helluva long way from the pituitary, man!"

They looked at me, horrified--I had blown my cover--and said, "It's reflexology!"

I quickly closed my eyes and appeared to be meditating.

That's just an example of the kind of things that overwhelm me. I also looked into extrasensory perception and PSI phenomena, and the latest craze there was Uri Geller, a man who is supposed to be able to bend keys by rubbing them with his finger. So I went to his hotel room, on his invitation, to see a demonstration of both mindreading and bending keys. He didn't do any mindreading that succeeded; nobody can read my mind, I guess. And my boy held a key and Geller rubbed it, and nothing happened. Then he told us it works better under water, and so you can picture all of us standing in the bathroom with the water turned on and the key under it, and him rubbing the key with his finger. Nothing happened. So I was unable to investigate that phenomenon.

But then I began to think, what else is there that we believe? (And I thought then about the witch doctors, and how easy it would have been to cheek on them by noticing that nothing really worked.) So I found things that even more people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate. There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you'll see the reading scores keep going down--or hardly going up in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods. There's a witch doctor remedy that doesn't work. It ought to be looked into; how do they know that their method should work? Another example is how to treat criminals. We obviously have made no progress--lots of theory, but no progress--in decreasing the amount of crime by the method that we use to handle criminals.

Yet these things are said to be scientific. We study them. And I think ordinary people with commonsense ideas are intimidated by this pseudoscience. A teacher who has some good idea of how to teach her children to read is forced by the school system to do it some other way--or is even fooled by the school system into thinking that her method is not necessarily a good one. Or a parent of bad boys, after disciplining them in one way or another, feels guilty for the rest of her life because she didn't do "the right thing," according to the experts.

So we really ought to look into theories that don't work, and science that isn't science.

I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas--he's the controller--and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.

Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they're missing. But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea Islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system. It is not something simple like telling them how to improve the shapes of the earphones. But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school--we never explicitly say what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty--a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid--not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked--to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can--if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong--to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

The easiest way to explain this idea is to contrast it, for example, with advertising. Last night I heard that Wesson oil doesn't soak through food. Well, that's true. It's not dishonest; but the thing I'm talking about is not just a matter of not being dishonest, it's a matter of scientific integrity, which is another level. The fact that should be added to that advertising statement is that no oils soak through food, if operated at a certain temperature. If operated at another temperature, they all will--including Wesson oil. So it's the implication which has been conveyed, not the fact, which is true, and the difference is what we have to deal with.

We've learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature's phenomena will agree or they'll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven't tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it's this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in cargo cult science.

A great deal of their difficulty is, of course, the difficulty of the subject and the inapplicability of the scientific method to the subject. Nevertheless it should be remarked that this is not the only difficulty. That's why the planes didn't land--but they don't land.

We have learned a lot from experience about how to handle some of the ways we fool ourselves. One example: Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops, and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It's a little bit off, because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It's interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of the electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bigger than Millikan's, and the next one's a little bit bigger than that, and the next one's a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.

Why didn't they discover that the new number was higher right away? It's a thing that scientists are ashamed of--this history--because it's apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan's, they thought something must be wrong--and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to Millikan's value they didn't look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that. We've learned those tricks nowadays, and now we don't have that kind of a disease.

But this long history of learning how not to fool ourselves--of having utter scientific integrity--is, I'm sorry to say, something

[p. 343]

that we haven't specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you've caught on by osmosis.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you've not fooled yourself, it's easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

I would like to add something that's not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you're talking as a scientist. I am not trying to tell you what to do about cheating on your wife, or fooling your girlfriend, or something like that, when you're not trying to be a scientist, but just trying to be an ordinary human being. We'll leave those problems up to you and your rabbi. I'm talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you are maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

For example, I was a little surprised when I was talking to a friend who was going to go on the radio. He does work on cosmology and astronomy, and he wondered how he would explain what the applications of this work were. "Well," I said, "there aren't any." He said, "Yes, but then we won't get support for more research of this kind." I think that's kind of dishonest. If you're representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you're doing--and if they don't want to support you under those circumstances, then that's their decision.

One example of the principle is this: If you've made up your mind to test a theory, or you want to explain some idea, you should always decide to publish it whichever way it comes out. If we only publish results of a certain kind, we can make the argument look good. We must publish both kinds of results.

I say that's also important in giving certain types of government advice. Supposing a senator asked you for advice about whether drilling a hole should be done in his state; and you decide it would be better in some other state. If you don't publish such a result, it seems to me you're not giving scientific advice. You're being used. If your answer happens to come out in the direction the government or the politicians like, they can use it as an argument in their favor; if it comes out the other way, they don't publish it at all. That's not giving scientific advice.

[p. 344]

Other kinds of errors are more characteristic of poor science. When I was at Cornell, I often talked to the people in the psychology department. One of the students told me she wanted to do an experiment that went something like this--it had been found by others that under certain circumstances, X, rats did something, A. She was curious as to whether, if she changed the circumstances to Y, they would still do A. So her proposal was to do the experiment under circumstances Y and see if they still did A.

I explained to her that it was necessary first to repeat in her laboratory the experiment of the other person--to do it under condition X to see if she could also get result A, and then change to Y and see if A changed. Then she would know that the real difference was the thing she thought she had under control.

She was very delighted with this new idea, and went to her professor. And his reply was, no, you cannot do that, because the experiment has already been done and you would be wasting time. This was in about 1947 or so, and it seems to have been the general policy then to not try to repeat psychological experiments, but only to change the conditions and see what happens.

Nowadays there's a certain danger of the same thing happening, even in the famous (?) field of physics. I was shocked to hear of an experiment done at the big accelerator at the National Accelerator Laboratory, where a person used deuterium. In order to compare his heavy hydrogen results to what might happen with light hydrogen" he had to use data from someone else's experiment on light hydrogen, which was done on different apparatus. When asked why, he said it was because he couldn't get time on the program (because there's so little time and it's such expensive apparatus) to do the experiment with light hydrogen on this apparatus because there wouldn't be any new result. And so the men in charge of programs at NAL are so anxious for new results, in order to get more money to keep the thing going for public relations purposes, they are destroying--possibly--the value of the experiments themselves, which is the whole purpose of the

[p. 345]

thing. It is often hard for the experimenters there to complete their work as their scientific integrity demands.

All experiments in psychology are not of this type, however. For example, there have been many experiments running rats through all kinds of mazes, and so on--with little clear result. But in 1937 a man named Young did a very interesting one. He had a long corridor with doors all along one side where the rats came in, and doors along the other side where the food was. He wanted to see if he could train the rats to go in at the third door down from wherever he started them off. No. The rats went immediately to the door where the food had been the time before.

The question was, how did the rats know, because the corridor was so beautifully built and so uniform, that this was the same door as before? Obviously there was something about the door that was different from the other doors. So he painted the doors very carefully, arranging the textures on the faces of the doors exactly the same. Still the rats could tell. Then he thought maybe the rats were smelling the food, so he used chemicals to change the smell after each run. Still the rats could tell. Then he realized the rats might be able to tell by seeing the lights and the arrangement in the laboratory like any commonsense person. So he covered the corridor, and still the rats could tell.

He finally found that they could tell by the way the floor sounded when they ran over it. And he could only fix that by putting his corridor in sand. So he covered one after another of all possible clues and finally was able to fool the rats so that they had to learn to go in the third door. If he relaxed any of his conditions, the rats could tell.

Now, from a scientific standpoint, that is an A-number-one experiment. That is the experiment that makes rat-running experiments sensible, because it uncovers the clues that the rat is really using--not what you think it's using. And that is the experiment that tells exactly what conditions you have to use in order to be careful and control everything in an experiment with rat-running.

I looked into the subsequent history of this research. The next experiment, and the one after that, never referred to Mr. Young. They never used any of his criteria of putting the corridor on sand, or being very careful. They just went right on running rats

[p. 346]

in the same old way, and paid no attention to the great discoveries of Mr. Young, and his papers are not referred to, because he didn't discover anything about the rats. In fact, he discovered all the things you have to do to discover something about rats. But not paying attention to experiments like that is a characteristic of cargo cult science.

Another example is the ESP experiments of Mr. Rhine, and other people. As various people have made criticisms--and they themselves have made criticisms of their own experiments--they improve the techniques so that the effects are smaller, and smaller, and smaller until they gradually disappear. All the parapsychologists are looking for some experiment that can be repeated--that you can do again and get the same effect--statistically, even. They run a million rats no, it's people this time they do a lot of things and get a certain statistical effect. Next time they try it they don't get it any more. And now you find a man saying that it is anirrelevant demand to expect a repeatable experiment. This is science?

This man also speaks about a new institution, in a talk in which he was resigning as Director of the Institute of Parapsychology. And, in telling people what to do next, he says that one of the things they have to do is be sure they only train students who have shown their ability to get PSI results to an acceptable extent--not to waste their time on those ambitious and interested students who get only chance results. It is very dangerous to have such a policy in teaching--to teach students only how to get certain results, rather than how to do an experiment with scientific integrity.

So I have just one wish for you--the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.

Feynman, Richard P., and Ralph Leighton. "Cargo Cult Science." Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! New York: W. W. Norton, 1985. 338-46. Print.

Excerpts available at Google Books: Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!